The long and winding road to permanent residency

After more than two decades of waiting, Mieka Neenan had given up hope that she would become a United States permanent resident.

Neenan, a native Australian, spent a small fortune and thousands of hours on her immigration application with her husband Skye Hovelman, beloved dog Daisy and hundreds of Orcas community members by her side.

On Aug. 26, the anguish of living in uncertainty came to an end with the arrival of her green card at the Eastsound Post Office.

“For the first time in 21 years, I get to call Orcas home, and I know it really is,” said Neenan, with tears in her eyes. “I used to say a prayer every day, sometimes 10 times a day, as I drove into town: ‘please let me stay here, please let us stay together.’ It’s a whole different view now. It’s not one of fear. I am not going to lose Skye or Daisy.”

How it all began

Neenan was living in Brisbane in 2001 when she accidentally met her future husband online. It was Good Friday, and she was attempting to log onto a local chat room when she was inadvertently flung into an American one. Neenan quickly logged off, but not before Hovelman, a long-time Orcas resident, saw her handle “forceofnature.” His was “eccentricenergy.”

He messaged her directly, and the two instantaneously connected. They chatted for five months online before Neenan scheduled a trip to the United States. She planned to stop by Orcas on her way to New York to stay with a friend. Upon arriving in the San Juans, she was stunned.

“I couldn’t stop staring at the trees,” she remembered. “I had never heard of Orcas or this part of the world until I met Skye. I came from a sunshine state of golden beaches.”

The two hit it off immediately in person. And then Hovelman took her to his favorite beach.

“I just knew I was home. I’d had a near-death experience 18 months earlier, and I saw this same view. This is my version of heaven. I knew from the day I arrived that I was home,” Neenan said.

Two weeks after she stepped off the ferry to Orcas, New York experienced the 9/11 attacks. Neenan canceled her trip; she and Hovelman were married within 90 days of her travel visa; and they promptly submitted her change of status and green card application.

Becoming a permanent resident

There isn’t a clear answer on why it took 21 years and 9 months for Neenan’s green card to be processed. She says it was likely a combination of issues with postal deliveries, bureaucracy and immigration applications submitted shortly after 9/11.

“I was legally married, but I wasn’t a legal resident,” she said. “We wanted to forge a life, like any young couple, but we could never do that.”

Instead, Neenan and Hovelman were terrified that if she left the island or visited Australia, she would never return home. Committed to giving all she could to her community, she volunteered as a hospice and grief counselor, ran a successful landscaping business with her husband, cleaned houses and worked at Island Market. Now, Neenan is co-director of the Imagine Music and Arts Festival and front-of-house manager for Orcas Center.

In 2012, Neenan made the wrenching decision to return to Australia to say goodbye to her ailing father without any guarantee of returning to Orcas.

“Nine months later when I was able to apply for a tourist visa to come back to the U.S., it was approved almost immediately. So I jumped on a plane within no time and got through immigration with considerable questioning,” she remembered.

After arriving back on Orcas, Neenan resubmitted her immigration application, only to hear nothing.

In 2015, she hired an immigration lawyer. For the next eight years, they went through more legal hoops, including in-person interviews (with Daisy in attendance), mental health evaluations and personal essays. More than 150 community members submitted letters. Her legal team said they had never received so many letters of support for a green card application.

“No matter what, we had things to be grateful for: we had each other, friends to support us and Skye’s family here on the island,” Neenan said. “I had given up on receiving my green card. I didn’t think it was going to happen.”

And then, in mid-August of this year, her lawyer called with the incredible news: the card had arrived in their Mt. Vernon office. Every day, Neenan anxiously checked her mailbox. After a week, she called her lawyer, afraid it had been lost in the mail, only to be told her green card hadn’t been sent yet. Finally, on the last Saturday in August, it arrived on Orcas.

Unfortunately, the post office was closed.

“I went down anyway to see if someone was there because I knew I’d have to sign for it,” Neenan said. “I saw (postal employee) Mike in the back. He looked at me, but I didn’t want to bother him. He came to the door anyway, and said he’d try to find it. He walked back to me and he wasn’t smiling, so I said ‘It’s okay, I’ll come on Monday, but I want you to be the one to hand it to me.’ And then he pulled his hand from behind the door, with a big smile, and he had all the paperwork. I started sobbing. I was so glad he was the one to hand me the green card. He’s been with me through all the highs and lows because it’s all been done through the post office: every letter, every statement.”

What’s next

Neenan will soon be applying for a passport and is currently saving for a visit to Australia. In 2026, she can apply for dual citizenship.

“If someone needs me at home, I know I can get on a plane and go home,” she said.

Neenan is also basking in the love of her husband and her community.

“There will be many more challenges life has to offer, but I will always feel most prepared, most suited and most capable to face them with my teammate by my side,” Hovelman said. “I could not fathom the loss of Mieka’s presence in my life.”

Added Neenan: “Skye and I have worked hard against all odds to stay strong and united. Now we can go to bed without fear and anxiety, and I can wake up in the morning without throwing up. There were so many years I’d wake up and think I would be deported. There were some things that felt insurmountable. I’ve learned my lesson in patience and believing in things and holding on to them. This community has given us hope when we had none, support in ways that showed us we were loved and appreciated and they’ve held us when we couldn’t hold each other. We have the deepest love and gratitude to Orcas Island and the incredible community that resides here.”